One of my favorite things to do at the end of the year is balance the books, review our achievements (or lack thereof), and plan for the new year.
One of the reasons I started this blog was to share our journey to financial freedom (mainly through real estate investing and rental properties), and help others do the same.
We are a very average family of 4, living on a single (albeit respectable) income. I am not a “real estate guru” or die-hard entrepreneur. But I do have a passion for personal finance, especially side hustles and making extra money.
We have several sources of extra income we have built to replace my wife’s income and hopefully someday to replace mine as well.
This past year, we had a few big wins (and also a few losses) as we continue to shift our strategy to earn extra income.
We have been very blessed to be able to pivot our strategy from more active income (house flipping, wholesaling) to more passive (crowdfunded real estate, rentals) as our kids get a little older and take more of our time.
Here is a review of some of the major focus areas for our finances over the last calendar year.
2019 Extra Income Goals
As a family of four living on a single income, one of the main ways we are pursuing financial independence is through side hustles and passive income. We bought our first rental property in 2013, and have been heavily involved in real estate every since.
With 2 small kids at home, we’ve recently been focusing on making our side income more passive, and diversified into other areas (such as crowdfunded real estate and starting a blog).
We had 7 main categories where we had a goal to make extra income. Here were our goals for 2019:
- Cash Back Apps: $500
- I started looking for the best cash back apps in September of 2018, and think between my wife and I we can make $500 per year with minimal effort.
- Credit Card Rewards: $1,000
- It’s time to sign up for another couple of rewards credit cards this year. If we can get 2 cards with a $500 bonus each, we’ll knock this one out easily.
- Interest Earned: $1,000
- Since selling off some of our real estate, we’ve slowly been moving money into crowdfunding or other investments. But we have a decent amount of cash laying around. We keep our cash in a high-interest online savings account (currently Ally Bank) and earn a bit of interest.
- Realtor Commissions: $15,000
- My wife has been able to make $15-20k the last few years just from random friends and family transactions. There’s no business in the pipeline, and we don’t do any marketing, but something usually pans out throughout the year.
- Real Estate Crowdfunding: $25,000
- We have a significant chunk of money in real estate crowdfunding and other private equity deals. Some send us a monthly or quarterly check, while others won’t pay us a dime for 5 years or more. Based on the types of deals we’re in, I think we should be able to get $25k in passive cash flow delivered to our mailbox in 2019 🙂
- Rental Properties: $25,000
- We don’t have any big plans to buy or sell any rental properties this year. My goal is to make $300 cash flow per month for each of our 7 units, which comes out to just over $25k.
- Blogging: $500
- Right now blogging is a fun hobby that has cost me a few hundred dollars so far. I’m hoping in 2019 I’ll be able to turn a small profit. We’ll see!
Total Extra Income Goal: $68,000
2019 Extra Income Achievements
We had a total goal of $68,000 of extra income, and I’m happy to say we achieved it! However we had plenty of bumps along the way, and things didn’t work out quite as expected. As you’ll see below, we made money in a few ways we didn’t plan to, and lost money in other areas.
Here’s how we did by category:
- Cash Back Apps
- Goal: $500
- Actual: $935
- Credit Card Rewards
- Goal: $1,000
- Actual: $2,324
- Interest Earned
- Goal: $1,000
- Actual: $1,514
- Realtor Commissions
- Goal: $15,000
- Actual: $10,614
- Real Estate Crowdfunding
- Goal: $25,000
- Actual: $25,409
- Rental Properties
- Goal: $25,000
- Actual: -$5,286 (yes that’s a negative number…)
- Goal: $500
- Actual: $2,504
- Real Estate Flips
- Goal: $0
- Actual: $30,381
- Real Estate Wholesales
- Goal: $0
- Actual: $2,248
- Goal: $68,000
- Actual: $70,642
We ended the year with a little over $70,000 in extra income! Here’s the breakdown by month. Most of the months that are barely positive (and the big negative in June) are due to our rental properties. Much more detail below on that.
And here is the breakout by category. My side hustle of choice is obviously real estate, but it is surprising how much diversification there is into different types of real estate income, some active and some passive. Read on for more details.
Real Estate Rentals: (-$5,286)
The year before we sold off a couple of our rental properties, but this year everything remained stable. We currently own 7 rental units (5 single family houses and 1 duplex).
As a rough goal, we would like to make $300 per month per unit in cash flow, so that is $2,100 per month or about $25,000 per year. After more than 5 consecutive years of beating that goal, we fell well short this year, coming in at a -$5,286 in cash flow.
There were three major events that contributed to the loss this year:
- We decided to spend almost $20k replacing the roof on our duplex.
- We had an eviction followed by major renovation required at our Indiana rental.
- We had extensive plumbing repairs required at one of our rentals.
Remember that what I’m reporting here is actual cash flow (money we can use to put food on the table if necessary). There are a lot of intangible benefits to owning real estate, and even with a $5k loss in cash flow our portfolio had a net positive impact on our net worth:
- $9,198 in mortgage principal paydown
- $52,000 in appreciation (based on my very conservative valuations)
So the overall picture looks a little better – our rentals added $56,000 to our net worth for the year.
Nevertheless, they did end up taking cash out of our pockets rather than putting cash in. Here’s how it broke down.
Total Rent Collected: $99,867
This includes $300 in late fees, and a $3,000 option fee when we rented the Indiana property as rent to own. We had about 6 months of vacancy between 2 of our houses due to repairs needed after move-out, which is higher than normal.
Total PITI (Principal, Interest, Taxes, & Insurance): $58,124
These expenses represent the mortgage payments on the properties. We paid about $21k in interest, $9k in principal, $23k in property taxes, and $5k in insurance. Both insurance and property taxes were up significantly from last year.
Total Maintenance and Capital Expenditures: $42,020
The rent and mortgage payment are pretty much the same every month. Maintenance and capital expenditures is where things can get crazy.
I do budget about $250 per month per house for repairs and capital expenses, which would come out to $21,000. So we pretty much doubled our budget. However, we have underrun this number every year since we starting owning rentals, so we were due for a “bad” year.
We had one planned expense this year, which was replacing the roof on our duplex. Except it wasn’t just a simple replacing of shingles – we converted 2 sections that were a flat roof into a sloped roofline. We’d been dealing with roof leaks for years and finally decided it was time to get rid of the real problem – the flat roof. This ended up costing about double what a normal roof replacement would ($17,400).
The other expenses came from tenant move-outs and plumbing repairs. One was an eviction where we ended up having to do a lot more work than planned, and another one had been occupied for quite some time and needed fresh paint and quite a few other fixes to make it ready to occupy again. We also had a plumbing leak underneath one house that was built in 1910. Fixing the leak cost about $200. Tunneling to the leak cost over $4,000 :/
This is probably my least favorite thing about owning rentals – the “surprise” issues that pop up, usually when we are out of town or some other inconvenient time. Even though it would make a significant dent in our cash flow, we have thought about turning everything over to a property manager just so we don’t have to be the one taking the calls.
Total Other Expenses: $1,044
This includes property management for our one out of state rental, utilities, gift cards we send to the tenants at Christmas, and a few other miscellaneous items.
*Accounting note: If you do the math, you’ll notice the income minus expenses doesn’t exactly match cash flow. We use Quickbooks, and cash flow is based on the Cash Flow Statement, which takes into account some other things, mainly that what we pay into our mortgage escrow accounts is not exactly what taxes and insurance actually cost for the year.
Real Estate Flips: $30,381
We’ve stopped actively marketing and looking for flips, but one did land in our lap…over 2 years ago. That’s right, we had a property under contract for 2 years, and FINALLY closed on it in 2019.
This deal came from a real estate agent who is friends with my wife. The house was part of an estate and was in bad shape. We gave them an offer, the executor of the estate agreed, and we sent the paperwork off to the title company. Unfortunately it took 2 years to untangle what was a very messy probate process.
But the good news for us is we bought a house in 2019 for 2017 prices! It needed a ton of work – we got bids anywhere from $80,000 up to $125,000. Since we bought it for such a low price, we decided to clean it out and put it on the market as-is and see if we got any reasonable offers.
Within a few weeks, we had a contract on it for well over what we paid. After accounting for all of our costs, we netted over $30k and didn’t end up having to do any work on it! Given labor and construction costs in our city these days, I think we actually might have made more money than if we had actually done the work to fix it up and sell it.
You can read more about our flip in the May Extra Income Report.
A lot of people would say we got lucky (and we did), but we have been working hard at finding good deals and running conservative numbers for many years now.
In large part, luck is the intersection between hard work and opportunity. That said, I don’t expect to see these kinds of numbers again anytime soon. We aren’t actively looking for more flips, and the market has certainly cooled off.
Real Estate Wholesales: $2,248
Wholesaling is basically like flipping houses, except without all the work involved. We get a house under contract at a below market price, and sell that contract for a fee to another investor that wants to do the work.
A few years ago, I was really pushing to try to turn our flipping and wholesaling side hustle into a full time job. I realized I didn’t love it enough to do it full time, so I pulled back the reins.
We did one wholesale deal in 2019, and it was completely unexpected…
My wife is a real estate agent, and she went to show our tree guy (who is also an investor) a 2 acre property with 5 mobile homes out in the middle of nowhere. He didn’t end up being interested in it, but she got to talking to the seller and realized he was extremely motivated to get rid of the property.
We ended up offering 30% less than they were asking, and the seller accepted. We partnered with another investor we know to sell the property (we were not very familiar with this area) and split the profits 50/50.
So we did one wholesale for $2,500 profit, and had about $250 of expenses, mostly related to our house buying website and some ongoing fees associated with the flipping/wholesaling business.
Realtor Commissions: $10,614
My wife got her real estate license back when we started investing with the sole intention of using it to save money on commissions for our own personal transactions.
As an unforeseen bonus, over the last few years she’s been able to make $10-20k per year in profit mostly from helping friends, family, and neighbors buy and sell their houses.
My wife kind of gets shortchanged here as she does a lot of work in buying and selling our own houses. None of that gets counted here because we basically give up her commission if it’s for something we personally own.
Usually our real estate profits get counted as capital gains (i.e. 15% tax rate), whereas realtor commissions get taxed at the full marginal rate PLUS the ~15% self employment tax. As long as we can legally and ethically find a way to NOT pay her a commission, we get to avoid a lot of taxes 🙂
In 2019, my wife did about 5 transactions for friends and family (including some leases which don’t pay very much). One thing a lot of people don’t realize about being a real estate agent is that it is expensive to maintain your license. She spends $3-4k per year on dues, subscriptions, and education. The $10,614 above is net of all expenses (but before taxes).
As the kids get a little older, we might pursue building the real estate agent business a little more, but for now we don’t plan to do any active marketing.
Credit Card Rewards: $2,324
I discovered the magical world of credit card rewards a few years ago and have not looked back.
In 2019, we accumulated about 132,432 points in our accounts – 80,000 from sign up bonuses and the rest from regular spending. If you value them at $0.01 per point, that means we earned $1,324 from credit card rewards. We also got a $1,000 bonus for opening a savings account, which I included here as well.
We ended up using 77,000 points to book almost $1,300 worth of travel for our family to fly home for Thanksgiving, which is about a $0.017 per point exchange rate! Travel is by far the best way to use your points if you want to get the most value out of them.
This year, we focused on opening 1 new card – a Chase Ink Preferred for my wife, for her realtor business and our rental properties. At the time, it came with an 80,000 point welcome bonus after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months, and gets you a 25% bonus when you use your points to pay for travel.
We are currently sitting on about 330,000 points waiting to be used. We are planning several trips in 2020, so I’m looking forward to more free travel 🙂
For more on our credit card rewards strategy, here is how we got over $2,000 in value from credit card rewards in 2019.
If you’re new to credit card rewards, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is my favorite regular credit card and Chase Ink Preferred my favorite business card. Note that you don’t have to have a brick and mortar small business to get a business credit card – side hustles count too!
Chase Sapphire Preferred
My #1 recommendation for travel rewards newbies is the Chase Sapphire Preferred. It offers a welcome bonus of 60,000 points (worth $750+ toward travel or $500 as straight cash) after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months.
The Sapphire Preferred comes with a $95 annual fee, but also comes with some great ongoing benefits:
- 2X points on travel and dining
- 1X points on everything else (1 point per dollar spent)
- Get 25% more value when redeeming points for travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal
Chase Ink Business Preferred
The Chase Ink Business Preferred comes with a whopping 100,000 point bonus when you spend $15,000 in the first 3 months.
That’s $1,250 toward travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards! Or possibly even more if you transfer to one of their points partners. For example, we transferred just under 80,000 points to Southwest, and that paid for 4 plane tickets for our family to travel over Thanksgiving (the cash value of the tickets was over $1,200!)
There is an annual fee of $95, but also some great ongoing bonuses:
- 3X points up to $150,000 in spending on travel expenses, shipping, cable, internet, phone services, and online advertising
- 1X points on all other categories
- Get 25% more value when redeeming points for travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal
Cash Back Apps: $935
I have a goal to make $500 per year with cash back apps. While that’s not a ton of money in the grand scheme of things, I like that it is almost completely passive (if you do it right).
Last year we cashed in $935 from our cash back apps! Granted, this is a little overstated as some of this came as referral sign ups through the blog. But a good portion of it was just from using the apps.
My favorite apps right now are Drop, Dosh, Ebates, Ibotta, and Fetch. Most give you cash back just for doing your normal shopping, but I’ve also found that there are a few easy hacks to get some decent rewards with a tiny bit of extra work.
For example, in the Drop app, they often have fairly lucrative offers to sign up for certain (free) financial products. I got $50 for opening a savings account (I only had to put $100 in it), and I got $15 just for filling out a survey to get a life insurance quote.
As long as you have the discipline to not buy stuff you don’t need, I think everyone should have these cash back apps installed on their phone. It’s such an easy, automated way to boost your savings.
Get the 5 Apps I Use and a $30 Cash Bonus When You Sign Up Now!
Real Estate Crowdfunding: $25,409
One of our goals in 2018 was to cash out some equity in our rental properties and move it into more passive investments.
We’ve been slowly investing in private equity deals as a limited partner throughout 2018 and 2019. This basically means we put in cash to own a small piece of the equity in an LLC, in exchange for a percentage of the profits.
For the most part, I am looking for deals that provide some sort of periodic cash flow, rather than just an appreciation play (kind of like dividend stocks vs. growth stocks). Most deals that interest me have an 8-10% preferred return (what the investors get paid before the sponsor starts to participate in profits).
I think over the long term, these deals should return 12-15% annualized IRR. Over the shorter term, the commercial real estate market is tough to predict. Cap rates have compressed about as much as they possibly can, and interest rates have bottomed out. I am being very cautious and looking for strong cash flow every month over potential appreciation.
In 2019, we got checks in the mail of $25,409 – the ultimate passive income.
The reason I include this here in our extra income report is because most of the capital we have invested in crowdfunding came from our other more active real estate side hustles – flipping, wholesaling, and rental properties. Without those, I wouldn’t have had the money to start investing passively.
Nothing too exciting here. We have some cash sitting in a high-yield savings account. This is partially our emergency fund, and partially set aside for new investments as opportunities arise. In the meantime, it makes us a couple hundred bucks per month.
I started this blog in 2018 to share our story and hopefully help others get on the path to financial freedom.
I’ve put a ton of hours into it (my hourly rate was probably <$5 in 2019), but I’ve enjoyed the process.
I’ve got bigger plans in 2020, and hope to grow this income stream further.
For a lot more detail on my blogging goals and accomplishments, you can read my Year 1 Blog Progress Report.
Our savings rate is a good measure of how much of our income we are actually putting to work to grow our net worth. If our family is a business, the savings rate is a measure of the profit after all expenses:
Savings = Income (After Tax) – Expenses
It’s also a good way to keep track of our trajectory on the path to financial independence – the higher the savings rate, the faster we can start living off our passive income and no longer rely on my day job and side hustles. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, I don’t think I can say it any better than Mr. Money Mustache in his article about the math behind early retirement.
In 2019, our savings rate was 57%! (vs. 58% the previous year)
We were blessed with another good year with our side hustles, which significantly boosted our income. Our expenses were pretty much the same as they always are, so that didn’t affect the equation too much.
In 2019, our net worth grew by 16%.
Given that the S&P 500 returned over 30%, that is kind of a disappointing number. However, only a small percentage of our net worth is in the stock market, and a lot of it is tied up in real estate (or real estate syndications) that cannot be properly valued until they are sold.
At this point in the market cycle I am perfectly ok with slow and steady growth, and I am much more focused on producing income (dividends) than I am on growth (appreciation). If the stock market goes down 30% next year, my rentals are still paying me the same amount every month. By focusing on cash flow, I am working on building up a steady income regardless of market conditions.
A few years ago, our net worth was growing by 30-40% a year, but it has definitely slowed down. There are a few variables that I think explain this change and why we should probably be expecting 10-15% in the future vs. 30-40%.
- As our net worth grows, it is much more dependent on the change in the value of our assets rather than our savings rate. When your net worth is $10,000 and you contribute $5,000 to your IRA, you just grew your net worth by 50% (all else being equal). When your net worth is $10,000,000, socking away $100,000 in a savings account only moves the needle by 1%. We are nowhere near the $10M mark, but our savings contributions continue to have a smaller and smaller impact on our net worth growth. We need to be more diligent in managing the assets we have.
- We are not working as hard. We made the conscious decision to slow down our real estate side hustles when we started having kids. At 2 and 4 years old, we don’t have the time we used to have to spend on the business. The nice thing about real estate is that if you put in a few years of hard work, you can still coast and collect profits for years down the line.
- We are focusing on income, not growth. We are investing in things that (should) produce a steady dividend every month or quarter. We don’t necessarily care as much about the growth of the underlying asset, even though there should still be some growth over time.
Looking Ahead to 2020
So what does 2020 hold for the Wealthy Nickel clan? Here are a few of my goals for the year related to our finances:
- Keep opportunistically selling rental properties when it makes sense. Move that money into private equity commercial real estate or the stock market if it has a pullback.
- Make at least $70,000 in extra income outside my day job.
- Achieve a 50% savings rate.
- Max out our retirement accounts and HSA.
Basically I am hoping to stay the course and diversify my investments a little bit away from the 80%+ rental real estate it has been in the past.
If you made it this far, you might be interested in checking out some of our other income reports: